Not many in India would remember the British; they would not have been even teenagers when the British left. They will remember the British being fair, but not many will have thought of them as good looking. Those of us who visited Britain thereafter may have noticed how Anglo-Saxon looks improved over the years. Fronts become more shapely (with due regard to the feelings of conservative readers, certain features of the female physiology will be called fronts in what follows), the number of chins went down, eyebrows acquired uniformity, ears became smaller, and so on. Nowhere has the human race improved so fast in so many dimensions.
Now the British government has become worried about this spate of beautification. As it usually does in times of stress, it appointed a committee, which has produced a beautiful report. It opened my eyes to an aspect of the British civilization I had completely missed.
Apparently, British girls are quite all right when they are kids; at the age of seven or eight, a third of them say they are happy, and two-thirds say they are very happy. But then they become aware of the probing eyes all around them. Some acquire boy friends, others wonder what they are missing out. By their early teens, the proportion of very happy girls falls to 13 per cent, whilst the proportion of unhappy girls goes up from eight to 37 per cent.
They cannot, of course, go in for cosmetic surgery even if they wanted to; they would have no money, and even if that was not a problem, their parents would be. But their parents face no such problems. What do they go in for? The most popular operation amongst men is rhinoplasty — that is, reshaping of the nose. Amongst women, it is front augmentation. Eyelid surgery is the second most popular amongst men as well as women.
The third most popular treatment amongst men is ear pinning. I thought it meant making a hole in the ear for rings, studs and such accessories, but it does not. It means reshaping the ears, principally tucking them in, but also often making them smaller and rounder. I never knew that EES — elephant ear syndrome — was so common in England. Amongst women, the third most common operation is face and neck surgery, presumably to remove folds and tighten up the skin.
The fourth most popular operation amongst women is tummy tuck. Protruding stomachs can be very comfortable once one gets used to them. But they are rather difficult to accommodate in readymade clothes; they have a habit of bulging out conspicuously. But they are not something that would worry men; amongst them, the fourth most popular operation is liposuction. It does not mean lip beautification; it means sucking out fat from underneath the chin to give it a firmer shape.
The fifth most popular operation amongst men as well as women is front reduction. I can understand this for men, who may not fancy going about looking like misshapen women. But women? I guess slimness is a fashion.
This list does not mention the most popular and traditional treatment because it can be used in so many ways, namely botox. Botox relaxes a muscle when injected; so it is used to remove wrinkles. If you are worried about that wrinkled forehead or nose, which makes you look perpetually bad tempered, botox may be your answer; it will give you a childish grin. But the commonest use of botox is in elevating fallen fronts.
These are only the common treatments. The commonest ailment is wrinkles; it is they that distinguish the young from the old. Cosmetic surgeons have developed many techniques for removing them. One is dermafillers, which are injected into the skin to give it a plumper look. The original dermafiller was collagen obtained from animals. Collagen dissolves in time, and has to be replaced. We too are animals, and contain a lot of collagen in many forms; so it is perfectly possible to get one’s wrinkles filled up with one’s own homegrown collagen — or for that matter, with one’s own fat.
But there are many other sophisticated treatments for wrinkles. The most popular one is laser skin treatment; lasers are used to abrade the skin, peel it off or vaporize it. It is not so frightening as it sounds; it is all done under anaesthetic, and enough painkillers are injected to make it comfortable. Laser treatment works well on wrinkles, but can also be used to remove scars.
Tattooing is associated in India with country bumpkins, but in England the technology has been developed to give highly sophisticated results. For centuries, the English used make-up to give colour to their relatively pale faces. Now it is possible to apply the make-up colours permanently by tattooing them — red lips and rosy eyelids forever.
Plastic surgery is still unregulated in Britain, so no one knows how many operations are done. But members of the Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons did 4,000 front operations in 2004; last year they did 10,000. Blepharoplasty — eyelid surgery — is the next popular; 7,000 were done last year. Face and neck lift and abdominoplasty run neck-and-neck; there were 5,000 of each last year. Altogether, cosmetic plastic surgery is a growth industry.
Medical treatment is free under the British national health service. So it is not surprising that many thought of having cosmetic surgery at the cost of NHS; and it has rebuffed them effectively. It has ruled that it will finance cosmetic surgery only in a limited set of circumstances. For instance, it will finance female front implants only when the natural fronts are misshapen or severely underdeveloped, and front reduction if oversized fronts lead to back or shoulder pain. Tummy tucks are out unless the protrusion is the aftermath of pregnancy or abdominal surgery. Eye reduction is done only if it would improve vision.
This is the picture in Britain; it must be replicated in all of Europe. And in the United States of America, which has underdeveloped public medicare, cosmetic plastic surgery is even more popular. When Indians gained independence, they thought that dependence had left them behind the West, and that they could now start catching up. They have been slogging and sweating for two generations, setting up industries, firing rockets, sailing to freezing Antarctica, and making a million cars a year. But when they stop working themselves to death, pause and look West, they will see how far the West has left them behind. While they went about building a strong and rich India, the West looked at them and asked itself, what is the point? We are rich; let us show it. And it worked out the most efficient way of feeling better about oneself, namely improving one’s looks, being Greta Garbo or Gregory Peck in this lifetime. It is time Indians woke up to this revolution. Many of them are rich enough; there is so much they can achieve in their lifetime. Can they imagine what a plastic surgeon could do to Lalu Prasad, Haradanahalli Doddegowda Deve Gowda, or a certain prominent East Indian lady? Let them stop imagining and start reshaping themselves.